A film review by Craig J. Koban February 15, 2020


2019, R, 130 mins.


Adam Sandler as Howard Ratner  /  Julia Fox as Julia  /  LaKeith Stanfield as Demany  /  Kevin Garnett as Kevin Garnett  /  Idina Menzel as Dinah  /  Eric Bogosian as Arno  /  Mike Francesa as Anthony  /  Judd Hirsch as Gooey

Written and directed by Josh and Benny Safdie

Make no mistake about it, the Safdie Brothers are unqualified cinematic masters of tension and mood.  Their films wash over viewers in a stupendously uncomfortable wave, making us feel all of the fever inducing levels of despair and panic that their characters on experiencing on screen.  

Josh and Benny Safdie's last film, the Robert Pattinson starring GOOD TIME, was a nightmarish urban crime film that had a hyper adrenalized sense of narrative momentum while, at the same time, feeling nihilistically cold and frankly exhausting to sit through.  I believe in my original review for that film that I relayed that watching it made me want to take shower afterwards to cleanse away all of its rampant scuzziness.  GOOD TIME was visually and technically brilliant, but its gritty dynamism left me feeling more than a bit empty after I left the cinema. 

I had similar feelings after screening their follow-up effort in UNCUT GEMS.  Like GOOD TIME, the Safdie's latest is just as effectively and bleakly skin crawling, this time in a story that chronicles the all out implosion of a gambling addict and how his unwavering obsession to making the next big score leads to a never ending series of chronically bad decisions.  I don't think that UNCUT GEMS is necessarily about the plague of gambling and the damning psychological effects it has on people, but rather is a frighteningly intimate portal into one sick man's impulsive behavior and restless levels of monumental stress.  Watching this film I felt like a fly on the wall eyewitness to one man's absolute shit storm of a life and how he's incapable of any modest levels of self control.  To be fair, UNCUT GEMS is a scary and difficult at times to watch examination of delusional addiction, all made with the Safdie's uniquely claustrophobic directorial and editorial style.  That, and it contains the single greatest performance of his life by Adam Sandler (yes, that one...more on him in a bit).  But for as propulsively powerful as the whole enterprise is, UNCUT GEMS still seems self-indulgently bloated and almost insufferably too long for its own good. 

And akin to GOOD TIME, it's a film that made me feel dirty.  

I'm still debating if that's a good or bad thing. 

But, hot damn, Sandler has never been as ferociously committed and eerily convincing in any role as he is here playing Howard Ratner, a New York based jewellery store owner, compulsive gambling addict, and petty conman. He's the kind of unstable guy that becomes so dangerously entrenched into heavy debt that he constantly and falsely feels that he's just one gambling win away from achieving financially freedom.  But his biggest sin is that he can't stop, even when his very life is threatened.  He owes money to seemingly everyone in the Big Apple, including his work colleagues, family members, and, most crucially, Arno (Eric Bogosian), who's had enough of Howard failing to pay him back and is poised to get the money out of him...violently if required.  Howard's very store and base of operations looks less like a typical retail environment and more like a prison atmosphere (he has a series of lockable entrances via door buzzers that gives him the small time advantage of escaping if any angry client comes knocking at his door).   



Through means far too complicated to explain, Howard comes into possession of an ultra rare and uncut Ethiopian opal, which he hopes to sell for millions at a local auction house to get him out of the red for good.  Fate steps in, as it always does, in NBA star Kevin Garnett (played by the real Garnett), who comes in with one of Howard's business colleagues in Demany (the always sensational LaKeith Stanfield) to take a look around Howard's shop and at his latest acquisition.  Within seconds, Kevin is infatuated with what he perceives is the mystical power of this uncut gem, and he pleads with Howard to loan it to him so he can use it as a good luck charm before big games.  Begrudgingly, Howard decides to loan Kevin the opal (requesting his NBA championship ring as collateral), but things start going really, really south for poor Howard when he realizes that getting his new prized possession back from the elusively busy Kevin proves to be tricky, leaving him in a horribly vulnerable position of having no money to pay off his loan sharks after explicit promises on his part to do so. 

Like their previous film, UNCUT GEMS is a stunningly lurid visual ride through and through, thanks to cinematographer Darius Khondji giving everything a hyper kinetic blast of garish color and decaying ambience.  I've sometimes complained about how many modern directors film their scenes as if the viewers were suffering from ADHD, oftentimes to headache inducing effect.  The same can be said to the Safdie's stylistic approach, but here it has a creative purpose of embellishing the fidgety edginess of Howard throughout, who narrowly escapes bodily harm on multiple occasions throughout the film from those that want to seriously make him pay and suffer for his unpaid debts.  It's highly fitting the UNCUT GEMS is, on a level of imagery and editorial flow, just as schizophrenically mannered as the main character himself.   Howard is someone that simply can't sit still for anyone or anything and is constantly on the run.  The film built around him, aesthetically speaking, is a mirror image of him.   

Howard is also an intoxicatingly layered character, and one of the of the minor miracles of this film is how the Safdies manage to make his plight and his troubled mindset relatable considering the fact that, deep down, this guy's a toxically dislikeable lout whose unpardonable actions threaten himself and those close to him with unspeakable harm.  This film never asks us to pity Howard, but rather to find a place of comprehension for what makes him tick and why he lacks modest self control when it comes to everything in life.  Of course, Sandler's tour de force performance is key here, and, yes, he's a comedic actor that I've been notoriously rough on for decades (he's allowed himself to wallow in some of the worst big screen comedies of all time).  That's not to say, though, that Sandler is talentless, despite a smorgasbord of past movie indiscretions.  When certain directors have used him in the past (like, say, Paul Thomas Anderson in PUNCH DRUNK LOVE) it's clear that Sandler has vast untapped dramatic potential coming to the forefront.  Howard in this film looks like he hasn't slept in months and is teetering close to emotional and physical ruin, and Sandler engages in a performance of full mind, body and soul commitment in relaying this chronically unbalanced hustler as a being that's got one foot in grave.  If it wasn't for Joaquin Phoenix's searing performance in JOKER, Sandler's work here in UNCUT GEMS would be the high benchmark achievement in the year that was as far as I'm concerned.  How he wasn't nominated for an Oscar is pretty mind blowing. 

Sandler is flanked by other superb actors, but the one that impressed me the most was by the non-actor Garnett playing a weird version of himself here, and it might be the finest display of acting by a professional athlete that I've ever seen in a film (he's a natural here).  I also greatly admired newcomer Julia Fox playing Howard's co-worker and part-time mistress on the side who provides a whole added layer of complex stress on Howard's already incalculably stressful life.  I only wished, though, that great actors like Stanfield were given broader roles here and more to do (he's as effectively in the zone here as he's ever been, albeit with a disappointingly underwritten role). Howard's wife in Dinah (Idina Menzel) also suffers a bit as a hastily realized character here, and the love triangle dynamic between herself, Howard, and Julia never really pays off as well as the Safdies perhaps intended. 

There are other issues that hold UNCUT GEMS from achieving true greatness, one of which being its endurance test of a running time.  At 130 minutes - and considering the dreary subject matter and aggressively hostile personalities involved - this film is a difficult slog to sit through.  There are also times when its length emphasizes the screenplay's own disjointed nature, with Howard's odyssey taking him from one sordid episode to the next without much in the way of a narrative game plan (the film has an untamed visceral energy, yes, but sometimes no story discipline).  Plus, the Safdies do go a bit pretentiously overboard with some of the visual motifs in UNCUT GEMS as well, especially when their camera literally goes into the black opal itself, which then morphs into a tiny surgical camera that's being used for a colonoscopy being performed on Howard.  I think the metaphor here is way, way too on the nose, obvious, and annoyingly showy and distracting.   

Having said all of that, I sincerely believe that the Safdie Brothers are steadily improving with each new film, and their UNCUT GEMS - alongside GOOD TIME - unequivocally proves that they are gifted cinematic provocateurs and button pushers that have the skills necessary to take certain actors outside of their self-contained comfort zones and bring out something special (what they did for Pattinson before is echoed by what they do with Sandler here).  I like too how their films feel like the product of a bygone era of Hollywood's past in terms of evoking the gritty urban chaos of films from the 70s.  Watching UNCUT GEMS wore me out to no end (that's both a compliment and criticism), and as masters of squirm inducing angst cinema, the Safdies have few equals (granted, I'd like to see them try something completely different with their next project).  And Sandler delivers one of the all time great performances of hot headed restlessness that I've ever seen.  Even though he's been making movies for over two decades, I finally feel comfortable in acknowledging - after seeing UNCUT GEMS - that this Sandler has a real future in the medium. 

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